"Deeper Magic." No, that's not the name of a new ecstasy-inducing shampoo. It's the two little words that tradition-minded Christians will be listening for as they watch Disney's new family blockbuster, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." This dazzling film includes just about everything a child could want for Christmas: evil spells, talking animals, spectacular battles, and four apparently-ordinary siblings who discover that they can be heroes.

In book form, "The Chronicles of Narnia" consists of seven slim volumes about the magical Kingdom of Narnia. The first one published, "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" (1950), makes a tasty introduction. Author C.S. Lewis is known for apologetic religious books such as "Mere Christianity," but he was no theological drone. From childhood, he had been deeply moved by ancient myths, and came to believe that this response is something planted in us by God. When certain themes recur in the world's great religions, such as a dying-and-rising god, Lewis said that they are like "good dreams" sown by our Creator. Believing that a capacity for wonder was vital to perceiving the presence of God, Lewis and his friend J.R.R. Tolkien set about writing stories that would reawaken imagination in an era that was hyper-rationalist and dry.

Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy filled our December multiplexes three years running. "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" could very well break those records. Unlike the "Rings" movies, it's child-friendly. The lead characters are children, and they are mercifully portrayed by actors who look like real, live kids rather than glamour-shot child stars. (Little Georgie Henley, who portrays the youngest sister, Lucy, is especially appealing). The vast landscapes are stunning, the homey interiors are charming, and when violence must occur the camera looks discreetly away. Some new action sequences have been shoehorned into the story, and these additions feel strained and artificial; they are likely to age worse than the rest of the movie. But there is still so much about this film that is superlative that it is easy to imagine it becoming an enduring children's classic like "The Wizard of Oz."

Yet what gives this tale its emotional punch is the roots Lewis gave it in one of those "good dreams." The White Witch has conquered Narnia, and for 100 years has wrapped the land in barren ice, "always winter and never Christmas." When the children tumble into Narnia through the back of a magical wardrobe (SPOILER ALERT: Quit reading here if you want to be surprised), the next-youngest, Edmund, meets the Witch, and she plays on his pride and greed to get him to betray his siblings. The good citizens of Narnia--talking animals who look satisfyingly like real animals rather than baby-faced toys--unite under the leadership of the noble lion Aslan. The Witch's power is shaken; pale blue begins to streak the winter sky, and Father Christmas appears to give the remaining siblings, Peter, Susan, and Lucy, "tools, not toys" for the battle ahead. After many dangers and trials, the four children reunite, and Edmund repents of his failing.

Sounds like a good place to wrap things up--but it's what comes next that makes this story so powerful. The Witch appears at Aslan's camp and demands her right to take Edmund away. According to the "Deep Magic," she says, "every traitor belongs to me; his blood is my property." She reminds Aslan, "Unless I have blood, as the Law demands, all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water." Aslan does not dispute this, but after private negotiations the Witch renounces her claim on Edmund. Only late that night do we learn why: Aslan is going to the Stone Table to die in his place.

Those who have seen "The Passion of the Christ" (or read the Gospel stories, for that matter) will note some similarities at this point. Aslan is mocked and bound and slaughtered. Lucy and Susan watch, distraught, then sit by his still, golden body all through the cold night. But as gray dawn breaks and they prepare to leave, they hear a mighty crack; the Stone Table has broken in two, and Aslan is restored to life. "If the witch knew the true meaning of sacrifice, she might have interpreted the Deep Magic differently," he tells them. "When a willing victim who has committed no treachery is killed in a traitor's stead, the Stone Table would crack and even death itself would turn backwards."

Not a tame author...

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  • Lewis was clear that he was writing a "supposal," not a flat-footed allegory. Yet contemporary Christians, who often feel bruised by Hollywood, have been worried that this spiritual them would be scrubbed entirely away. Rest assured: It's all there, just as overtly as in the novel, and handled with all due dignity. When I first heard that this movie was being made, I feared the worst: a cuddly plush-toy Aslan with big pleading eyes. Instead, this Aslan is about as majestic and regal as you could wish, and his eyes are concealed just enough that he retains an air of mystery. It's slightly disappointing that, after his Resurrection, he isn't larger than before, as he is in the book. But it's a great relief that, after his Resurrection, he doesn't have to go bounding and romping around with the girls like an overgrown kitten. That passage is a clinker in the novel, and it would have been mortifying on the big screen.

    Not only are Lewis's theological references intact, but a couple of lines of dialogue have even been tweaked to bring them closer to Gospel text. Now, when the girls hear the Table crack, they ask, "Where's Aslan? What have they done?"--echoing Mary Magdalene's response on discovering the empty tomb (John 20:13-15). And when Aslan deals the final blow to the Witch, he announces to Peter, "It is finished!"--Christ's final words from the Cross (John 19:30). The only audience members who will get this are those who have such Scriptures memorized, but it's a nudge-in-the-ribs they will surely appreciate.

    Christians savor this story as one that retells the drama of our salvation on the cross, but there's something puzzling about that: The Narnian story doesn't quite track with the one Western Christians have traditionally upheld. According to that popular understanding of atonement, God could not forgive our sins without punishing us, because that would constitute "injustice." But if the sinless Son dies in our place he pays a debt he does not owe, and can then "make over the claim He had on God to man," as Anselm of Canterbury said. This is termed the "Satisfaction" theory of the Atonement, and has been dominant in Western Christianity since it was developed by Anselm in the 11th century.

    But in the case of Aslan's death--contrary to the "Satisfaction" theory--there's no suggestion that Edmund's treachery incurs a debt with Narnia's Creator, the "Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea" (a vague figure who never appears, but who apparently parallels God the Father; one thing the Narnia stories aren't strong on is the Trinity). Aslan's death on the Stone Table is not presented as a way of satisfying Edmund's offense against the Emperor.

    Aslan's heroic act is aimed at the Witch, not the Emperor, and he defeats her by using information she does not have. This sounds like the understanding of salvation that held sway for the thousand years before Anselm, still preserved in the Christian East, which echoed the earlier story of the Exodus. According to this understanding, God does not require any payment for our sins, but forgives us freely, just like we're supposed to forgive each other. We are helpless in the grip of evil forces, like the Hebrews in Egypt and the beasts in Narnia. God rescues us by a mighty act, by his power alone.

    This victory trounces evil. In the Exodus story, Pharaoh and his army are drowned when they try to recapture the Hebrews fleeing to freedom. In the Christian story, the Devil is smashed when he seeks to imprison Christ, Life itself, in the realm of Death. And in Lewis's story, the Witch's power over all Narnia is destroyed when she greedily snatches at Aslan's innocent life.

    In each case this is a rescue story, not a payment story. The hint of trickery is distasteful to Western Christians, but was not to believers in the early centuries. St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. 395 AD) said that Christ's divinity was hidden under his humanity like a fishhook under bait, and Satan "like a ravenous fish" gulped it down.

    All of which reminds us that C.S. Lewis could be more creative and original than his defenders and detractors sometimes realize. You might say that he was "not a tame author," echoing his marvelous phrase that Aslan is "not a tame lion." ("'Course he isn't safe," Mr. Beaver says in the novel. "But he's good.") Lewis could take a sterling line like that, and then turn it around in the final Narnia story, "The Last Battle," and use it to heartbreaking effect. See, the "last king of Narnia," King Tirian, has just rescued some dwarves, but when he reminds them that "Aslan is not a tame lion," they jeer and say.

    But that's another story. There are many, many wonderful stories in Narnia, and "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is only the beginning. Come on. Let's go to the movies.

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